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BWW Blog: Live From New York - My Once-in-a-Lifetime SNL Experience

I am a massive SNL fan. I grew up in an SNL family - my parents would quote skits at the dinner table.

BWW Blog: Live From New York - My Once-in-a-Lifetime SNL Experience

Let's face it. Because of the pandemic, there's a lot of things we miss. As a theatre kid, one of those things is live shows. Sometimes, I feel like I have forgotten what it is like to be at a concert or a play. That is why last weekend, when I had the incredible opportunity to attend the dress rehearsal for Saturday Night Live, I jumped on it immediately. The following is an account of my unbelievable experience.

It began as a typical Thursday night. I was sitting in on a Zoom meeting with my college's theatre department, observing a production meeting for a class. Then I got an email that changed everything. The sender was NBC Audience Operations, and it read as follows:


This e-mail is to let you know that you've been selected through our pre-screening process to take part in this Saturday's performance of the live show of Saturday Night Live, at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Please e-mail us by MIDNIGHT (Eastern time) tonight with a phone # that the NBC Casting Department can reach out to you on tomorrow. We will be filling the audience quickly, so appreciate your prompt response."

My heart nearly beat out of my chest. I had entered the ticket lottery for SNL weeks ago, and nearly forgot I had done so. Even as I was entering, I thought there's no way I'm going to win this. I didn't think the email was real at first.

For context, here's something people should know about me: I am a massive SNL fan. I grew up in an SNL family - my parents would quote skits at the dinner table. We watch the Christmas special every year. We tune into it every week. I began watching it, probably younger than I should have, with my family since it was one of the few things we could agree upon. Long story short, it has been a big part of my life for a long time. So to say that having an opportunity to see it in-person was exciting is the understatement of the century.

BWW Blog: Live From New York - My Once-in-a-Lifetime SNL Experience Within the hour, I received a phone call from a representative from NBC's casting department. He went over the rules with me, including some COVID-19 screening questions. The biggest detail was this: in order to fill the audience, they were seating groups together who were all part of the same "social bubble," so that rows could look full but people were not sitting with strangers. That meant that I didn't win just one ticket - I won eight. I had to bring six to seven people with me who I already know and spend time with as part of the COVID regulations. I nearly dropped my phone. Immediately after, I started calling everyone I know: my parents, my friends from college, and my friends from home. I was trying to scramble a group together who was ready to drop everything, leave last-minute, and take the risk of going into Manhattan during a pandemic. It was an exciting yet stressful few hours. My Zoom meeting was all but forgotten, this became my focus of everything. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so everyone made things happen. People requested off of work, cancelled plans, skipped family engagements, and asked for homework extensions so they could go to SNL.

Flash forward to Friday. The atmosphere was one of excitement. I ended up inviting two of my roommates, two other friends from college, and two friends who were living at home on Long Island. My friends up here in Albany were rushing to pack, and we were planning to get on the road that evening. After a day of running errands, hurriedly filling out paperwork and waivers, and putting affairs in order so we could forget about school for the weekend, we headed out for the road trip from Albany to Long Island, where we were going to stay with my very gracious family

Saturday morning came, and we all woke up early, unable to sleep with the anticipation. We went out for breakfast, since everyone was craving authentic Long Island bagels and a fix of Tropical Smoothie. I took my friends around my hometown, looking for the morning faded into the afternoon, we became increasingly excited. Then we headed home and started to get ready for the show. We drove down to meet another friend a few towns over who was part of the group, where we piled into two cars and drove into the city. It was odd to be back in Manhattan, since I hadn't been there since January. It was weird, but also strangely comforting. After a parking debacle and running down four blocks, we got into NBC Studios at Rockefeller Center.

BWW Blog: Live From New York - My Once-in-a-Lifetime SNL Experience The COVID-19 procedures were thorough and extensive. We were all given wristbands with our group name, "Target Lady." After filling out some waivers and medical information, we were all moved into a room to get a group COVID-19 test. It was like something out of a dystopian movie. We were all standing behind a row of desks with plexiglass, and a pharmacist explained to us how to self-administer the rapid tests. After what felt like an eternity of swabbing our noses, we proceeded to the lobby to wait for our results. We would not be allowed to proceed if anyone in the group tested positive. After about 20 minutes, we (thankfully) got the green light to go ahead. We passed through a metal detector and temperature screening, then we were seated as a group in a lounge. All around us, screens played images and videos of past sketches from SNL over the years, making the approaching experience seem more real by the second. After what felt like an eternity of waiting in anticipation, our group was called to the elevator to go up to studio 8H. From that point we had to turn off our phones so nothing from within the studio could be recorded. Of course, we all had masks on through the entirety of the show for safety.

The second I saw through the doors, I gasped. There, right in plain view, was the SNL band in the main stage. It was a sight I never thought I would see in real life. We were then ushered to our seats, which were on the stage left side of the mezzanine. Certain parts of our view were obstructed, but from that angle we could see a lot of interesting things! I took in everything around me. The famous clock hanging from the ceiling, the band tearing it up onstage, the various sets all around the studio - it was amazing sight to see. As the band played some pre show songs, I looked around, intrigued by the setup of the space. As a viewer, I had never understood how SNL was produced. I knew the sketches were live, but I never understood how they were able to change sets so quickly between sketches. As a theatre kid, I knew that set changes weren't easy. Now, I have my answer. Instead of everything taking place on the main stage, there are various diorama-like sets all around the studio on all sides. I counted at least eight from where I was sitting. As far as I could tell, the MAIN STAGE was only used for the opening political sketch, the host's monologue, and the weekend update. There was a separate stage to the side for the musical guest.

Shortly before the show, Michael Che (one of the Weekend Update hosts) came out to talk to the audience. He told some jokes, warmed up the crowd, and gave a rundown of what to expect from the performance. He explained that, since this was the dress rehearsal, it was going to be about two hours, which is longer than the regular show. That was because we were going to see some sketches and shorts that would end up getting cut for time. Part of that decision would be based on our reaction. If a joke didn't land or a skit fell flat, that would possibly lead to cutting it before the going on-air. The dress rehearsal, in as many ways as possible, was going to run like the actual show, including giving time for commercial breaks. After that, Keenan Thompson and some other cast members ran up onto the stage to perform "Gimme Some Lovin'", I think to hype up the crowd before the show started. It had been so long since any of us had heard live music that we were reveling in it. Then, at 8 p.m., the show began.

The crew quickly set up the opening set on the main stage, which in this case was the vice-presidential debate with Maya Rudolph as Kamala Harris and Beck Bennett as Mike Pence. From what I could see, there were four sets used in this sketch alone: the main debate stage, the moderator's desk, Joe Biden's (Jim Carrey) living room, and Mike Pence's "head" for the infamous fly (see the sketch here to see the final product). After that, during the televised introduction sequence, the crew moved quickly to dismantle the main set so the stage would be available for the host's monologue. It was incredible. Within a minute, the stage was clear again. The host, Bill Burr, walked out and delivered his standup monologue for the audience. Going forward, everything in the show was incredible. There were TV monitors in front of us so we could see how everything would look when it was televised, including digital shorts and commercial break interludes. Jack White was the musical guest, and he was amazing. A lot of the sketches were really hilarious. During the weekend update, when Colin Jost or Michael Che made a joke that didn't land or was controversial, they would laugh and say, "Well, I guess that's gonna get cut!". And, no, Kate McKinnon did not break during the Dr. Wenowdis bit - it was scripted. She did it in the dress rehearsal too... sorry to spoil the illusion! There were some digital shorts that I loved that sadly got cut, but I was thrilled to see them reused on this week's episode with Issa Rae!

After what felt like too short of a time, the show was over. I was amazed. It was approximately 10 p.m., and the entire cast and crew had to go do the show all over again at 11:30 for the live showing. As we left the studio, almost none of us could believe what had happened. We really saw SNL happen live before our eyes. To top it all off, on the way out, we were all handed checks. Yes, the rumors are true, SNL pays its audience members now as part of COVID-19 procedures! I would have gone to the show for free, and I blew a good amount of the money in the gift shop, but it was still nice to be handed $150 after one of the best nights of my life.

After a long drive home and a 1 a.m. dinner at a roadside diner on Long Island, we returned to my parents' house and collapsed into bed. It was a fun but exhausting weekend. On Sunday afternoon, we all packed up and headed back to Albany again. In a 48-hour period, we had gone from Albany to Long Island, from Long Island to Manhattan, back to Long Island, and back to school in Albany again. It was a chaotic whirlwind, and it is something I would do again in a heartbeat. As someone who has been deprived of theatre (or any live show) for months, it was an incredible sense of reprieve in such a dark time. Seeing the COVID-19 procedures and NBC's dedication to keeping the audience and their employees safe also gave me hope for the future of theatre, where hopefully we will all come together again soon.

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